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3 Feb 2009 : Column 200WH—continued

The key consideration is not whether a site is brownfield, but whether it is suitable for housing development—that it is a suitable area that will contribute to the creation of
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sustainable mixed communities. The Government’s position is that local planning authorities are the best judges of that, taking into account their specific circumstances and needs. Garden land development should therefore be judged locally as to whether it is conducive to sustainable mixed communities. There is no diktat from central Government—far from it—but an insistence that local authorities should judge this, in consultation with their local residents.

The Government’s position, in advance of the review findings, is that it would be wrong to deny local authorities the flexibility to set planning policies and take planning decisions based on their knowledge of areas. Wherever possible, that is our preferred approach in line with improving local democracy and accountability. We should continue to allow planning authorities to make judgments based on the knowledge of their own area, through the development of local policies and taking decisions on planning applications. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Stewart Jackson) acknowledge that considerable progress had been made over the past couple of years on strengthening local development frameworks. That is somewhat at odds with his stance on how we are moving everything towards a regional spatial strategy, but I welcomed his sentiments.

Dan Rogerson: I welcome what the Minister says about its being the Government’s intention that local authorities should have maximum discretion in determining these policies. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that occasionally, on appeal, there is conflict between what planning inspectors feel to be enforceable and what local authorities believe stands up. The Government should look at this issue again. Local authorities believe that they have discretion to act in a certain way, taking into account conditions such as the number of affordable homes in a development, and then have difficulty persuading the planning inspector that their policy should have some force.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said, appeals are an historic part of the planning process, and no one wants to get rid of what is perceived to be natural justice. If a local authority has a robust local development framework in place and it is tested through appeal, it will be in a strong position.
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In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, the North Cornwall district local plan contains the following text—I believe that it is called HSG 3—to support its policy on intensification of residential use:

So there is an idea that the council wants to strengthen it as much as possible. Brentwood’s replacement local plan of 2005, for example, has specific policies reflecting local circumstances that any new development should reflect the character and density of the surrounding area and shall have minimum net plot sizes and minimum building line frontages.

I do not wish to be party political about this, but the London borough of Bromley—which is not yet the socialist republic of Bromley—has the following text regarding housing density and design policy. It is worth quoting to show what local authorities can do, and how they can be in the driving seat in this regard. It says:

That provides robust analysis and evidence to ensure that planning applications can be brought forward in that context—something that is important and places local authorities very much in the driving seat.

I do not have time today to move to the second part of my contribution, relating to the review promised by my right hon. Friend in respect of the deliberations on the Planning Act, but I will write to those hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is an important point. Let me reassure—

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We must move to the next debate.

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Bristol Barrage and Severn Estuary

12.30 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I always seem to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, and it is a privilege to do so once again. I am delighted to have a chance to speak on a subject that might be slightly controversial, but something that I think that we can support. First, however, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), in whose constituency the barrage will be located. He has played a vital role in moving the barrage to its current state.

My comments today are less about this Government and more about the operation of successive Governments. The problem is that, owing to their boldness, the plans for the Severn barrage have been on the drawing board since 1974, when I was still at school. They say that a week is a long time in politics; 35 years must be getting on for a bit of a record. I wish all Ministers well in their jobs, but I must remind a few people of the facts. Ministers, rather like barrage blueprints in Somerset, come and go quickly. If I were to list every hon. Member, living and dead, to have taken responsibility for this project, we would be here until well after bedtime and the snow would be falling again.

I suspect that no one really wants to be responsible for making a decision. The Government have tried to confuse us—I say this in the nicest possible way—by deliberately changing the names of the Ministries in charge. Until very recently, barrage experts were all based at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is known colloquially as “brr”—which is rather appropriate, given my struggle out of Somerset this morning. The Department has now become the principality of darkness and the Prime Minister’s new best friend—dare I say it?—Lord Mandelson, is now in charge. Whatever I might think about the noble Lord, he has a very good nose for trouble. When he took over at BERR, the controversial subject of energy was promptly shunted off to another Ministry—of silly names, dare I say it?—the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. DECC has nothing to do with our famous northern friends, Ant and Dec, although I suspect that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change might be looking at the barrage and saying, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here—quick!” In short, the project is one of the most poisoned chalices faced by any Minister.

One of the problems is that the scientists are at loggerheads. Energy experts say one thing and the green lobby something completely different. They are complete rivals. Engineering firms are dying to win contracts, and consultants are crawling over everything for a fat fee, and that is not to mention a whole raft of do-gooders—unelected and unaccountable—and busybodies, such as my favourite whipping horse, Mr. Humphrey Temperley, who is in charge of the flood defence committee—God help us! He has managed to get himself on so many flood defence committees that he now wears wellies in bed, I am told. He is a menace to the success of this project.

The Government have allowed all those different groups to deluge them with views over many years, which helps to explain why, after umpteen reports,
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inquiries and consultations, we are still discussing the idea, rather than the reality—I say that advisedly. Twenty two years ago, after 65 million quid of public money had been spent on surveys, the Severn tidal power group came out in favour of a barrage—great! However, the Government of the day fudged it. Seven years ago, the tidal power group revamped its findings, but the Government said that the project was too costly and might damage the environment—in other words, they fudged it again. The whole thing then festered until three years ago, when an outfit called the Sustainable Development Commission was given a big bung to do more—guess what—research. At our expense, it ordered no fewer than five new reports—wow! It also took a large volume of evidence from a wide range of organisations and consultants—cor! It also got stuck in the politically correct agenda, and I have to quote the commission because this is such appalling stuff:

In other words, it did more talking.

Throughout this sorry saga, there has been too much talking and—I again say this advisedly—too little action. The project is now under the control of Ant and DECC, but Miliband minor may have actually come up with a few surprising signs of movement. Just a few days ago, the Government thankfully nailed their colours to the mast and produced a shortlist of possibilities, for which we are grateful. They have done the courageous thing: they have made a choice—sort of. The Government now have—wait for it—five different ideas for the Severn estuary, with plans for three possible barrages and two lagoons. First, there is the Shoots barrage up near the toll road over the Severn, which is estimated to cost £3.2 billion and designed to generate slightly less than 1 per cent. of the UK’s electricity—the rough equivalent of a very large coal-fired power station.

Secondly, there is the Beachley barrage, which is slightly smaller and further upstream than the Shoots barrage. It is priced at £2.3 billion, but it would generate much less electricity. Thirdly, however, there is the monster: the Cardiff to Weston barrage, between Brean down and Lavernock point, which could provide more than 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity. This is the one that the environmentalists—to their shame—really hate. Critics say that the birds will have nowhere to feed, that the construction might get in the way of shipping and that it could cause flooding.

Next there are the lagoons: Fleming lagoon, over on the Welsh shore of the estuary between Newport and the Severn road crossing; and the Bridgwater bay lagoon, which will be on the English side of the estuary between Hinkley Point and Weston-super-Mare. This is the one that could really affect my constituency. Will the Minister give me cast-iron assurances today that a lagoon so close to Hinkley Point nuclear power station would not hinder its vital supply of cooling water or the outflow? She is well aware of the new developments at Hinkley and the possible building by EDF of two new reactors, but I wonder what the impact will be on the seaside holidaymakers who are absolutely crucial to that part of the coastline, not just in Weston-super-Mare but in Brean and in Burnham, which are in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells
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(Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Tourism is an absolutely vital ingredient of our local economy and we just cannot afford to lose the seaside because of a lagoon.

I sympathise with the dilemma facing Ministers. There are a great many unknowns, and I suspect that there always will be, but so much research has already been done that I wonder whether the latest round of consultations are a convenient excuse to put everything on the back burner again. As the Secretary of State might say about this case, “My indecision is final.” One might say, “Shall we have lunch, Secretary of State? Perhaps you would like to see the menu? Perhaps not. Suppose we add some extra courses?” When we look more closely at the Government’s position, we find that they have actually announced that there will be yet another three-month consultation before any one of those five plans can be rejected.

But hold on, there is a little more. An extra half a million quid of public money is about to be spent on developing other innovations, such as the tidal reef and the tidal fence. So, again we might be saying, “Bring on the new technologies and let’s have another hugely expensive public consultation exercise. How about next year—after lunch?” It is up to the Minister to decide.

Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps after the next election, someone might make some sort of decision about this, but then again, perhaps not. I yet again urge the Minister to clarify what the Government would like. I represent Bridgwater and west Somerset. I am keen on using natural energy, if it works, but I am keener on keeping the lights burning in places such as Minehead where we need to keep people warm, so I am delighted—I mean this—that the Government have taken the future of nuclear energy seriously.

EDF Energy now runs Hinkley B nuclear power station, which it has taken over from British Energy, and it plans to build new reactors on the site. Not only will that contribute enormously to the UK’s energy needs and our energy security, but—more importantly, from a personal point of view—it will create vital jobs in the local economy and at our local colleges.

The difference between nuclear power and harnessing the tidal flow is that nuclear has a proven record—it is possible to look at it both ways, but it has a proven record. The estuary has never been given a chance. Even in France, the tidal project that is up and running is Mickey Mouse compared with what we are looking to do in the UK. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, but there is no real equivalent anywhere in the world to a civil engineering project on such a scale.

I live close to the Bristol channel. I have spent my time going down to the sea—occasionally wanting to chuck myself in when it all goes wrong—and watching the behaviour of oyster catchers and ringed plovers. I live in the most beautiful part of the world. However, to be brutally frank, I have witnessed swifter decision making by our visiting feathered friends. The water birds wade in the waves and get on with it. Dare I say that consecutive Ministers have wallowed and wavered? Yes, hon. Members have guessed it: the only winners after three decades of Government indecision are the blessed birds themselves. The Severn estuary is designated a special area for conservation. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is absolutely right. I know that it is a special place—I live there—but this is why I tried to secure the debate.

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Every year, up to 85,000 migrating birds pass through my constituency and stop off at our beautiful estuary, so there is an awful lot of flapping, squawking and carrying on. People cannot move for curlews and dunlins, and all sorts of greedy waders fill their beaks on the mudflats of Bridgwater bay. What will happen to those mudflats if one of these three barrages is built? Will the birds take off and simply fly elsewhere and, to be brutally frank, does it matter if they do—they are birds? I am not sure of the answer, but I do not know whether the Minister is sure, either, because this area has not been explored. The only people who say that they are sure are the bird lovers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who are forever on the local television, condemning everybody. The RSPB is so sure of itself that it has got involved in some high-powered and very expensive lobbying, which, I am afraid, makes the recent antics of a handful of Labour Lords look like chicken feed.

The RSPB is backing the idea of lagoons as though it was the holy grail. It supports an American company called Tidal Electric, which says that it can construct shallow lagoons to trap incoming water and then release it through turbines when the tide goes back out. The RSPB paid for an impressive report by the British engineering giant WS Atkins, which handles huge Government contracts—for example, it takes care of the roads in Somerset—but the firm will write a report for anybody, providing they foot the bill, because that is the name of the game. Guess what? Atkins now favours lagoons—funny that, especially when it does a lot of work in Somerset.

Meanwhile, Tidal Electric insists that its lagoons could generate almost as much power as the best barrage, but that that would cost the taxpayer absolutely nothing. It sounds like the bargain of a lifetime, but most bargains, as we Members of Parliament know, are too good to be true. We have free lagoons versus billions on the barrage. The cost of constructing the biggest barrage is already being talked about as being in the region of £20 billion at today’s prices, although it might be slightly more or less than that. For months, I had the uncomfortable task of sitting on the Committee that considered the Crossrail Bill and watching the public cost of Crossrail going up like a high-speed taxi meter in a gridlocked London traffic jam, which is rather pertinent given the conditions of the past two days. The cost of the barrage might be £20 billion now, but by the time whichever Government make the decision to actually build it, it will cost a few squillion more.

Even the bargain basement lagoon will not be cheap and, as always, the taxpayers will end up footing the bill. I am afraid that I do not think that the lagoon will be free and I am certainly not seduced by the RSPB. No one has, to my knowledge, ever built a working lagoon of this size, but there are not a whole lot of working barrages like the ones planned for the Severn either.

What I am getting at with this? Some 35 years ago, when the prime source of electricity in this country was coal, people started dreaming up ways to trap the energy of the sea, which was fantastic. I was 15 then, and I am heading for 50 in a month’s time, yet we are still too far from that point and still too busy talking about whether it would be a good idea. We do not know all the answers—we accept that—and perhaps we never will, but we must try to understand.

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The gossip is that Ministers favour the big 10-mile barrage but do not want to upset the bird lovers by saying so. Britain is used to innovation; we are a country of innovation. Brunel left his mark on my part of England because he took risks. The time for shilly-shallying is over. I say to the Minister: please make the decision, build the barrage and to hell with the RSPB. Let us get the job done as quickly as possible.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate and on the way that he presented his case. I am rarely amused in Westminster Hall, but I have been thoroughly amused this morning, and I thank him for it.

The hon. Gentleman said that it had taken all of 35 years, and that he is familiar with it all. Coming from south Wales, and having been at school there, I am also familiar with the proposals over the period that he mentioned. For me, it was always an exciting possibility, but one that clearly had huge impacts on the local environment, no matter which side of the estuary one came from.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said at the launch of our first consultation on the issue last week, we want an open debate about whether a Severn tidal power scheme can help us meet our climate change and energy goals. Although it has been a long time coming, the consultation is serious and focused, lasting three months. It is occurring because we want to go to the next phase and make a decision.

There must be an open debate with stakeholders, with the public and here in Parliament. To help inform that debate, we have published alongside the consultation document a number of detailed reports covering the range of issues under consideration. They include the scope of the strategic environmental assessment, the potential finance and ownership options, the regional economic impacts and a preliminary review of compensation and mitigation requirements under the habitats directive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who spoke at the Severn tidal power parliamentary forum last week, has already offered to hold two further parliamentary briefing sessions during the consultation to cover in more detail the economic and environmental impact work done so far in the feasibility study.

Combating climate change while ensuring secure energy supplies is the biggest long-term challenge that we face. Hon. Members will know that we have committed to providing 15 per cent. of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and adopted a domestic target of an 80 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. To meet those requirements, we will need greater energy efficiency coupled with low or no-carbon generation, including nuclear power and renewables. Our actions must be not only ambitious but fair and sustainable, and we must consider all reasonable options.

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